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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Intelligence Appropriations Process: Issues for Congress

Richard A. Best Jr.
Specialist in National Defense

It is now publicly acknowledged that intelligence appropriations are a significant component of the federal budget, over $80 billion in FY2010 for both the national and military intelligence programs. In an era of fiscal austerity, it is likely that Members of Congress will review intelligence programs to ensure they are both effective and affordable. The appropriation process for intelligence activities is, however, complex and not widely understood. Critics charge that it does not permit the Director of National Intelligence, or any other official, to provide overall management and direction, reduce inefficiencies, and undertake necessary transfers and reprogrammings to respond to a rapidly changing global environment. Others, including the 9/11 Commission, have argued that strengthening congressional oversight of intelligence, and especially intelligence appropriations, is a difficult and important problem.

A number of changes have been proposed. Some, such as the proposal by the 9/11 Commission to combine authorization and appropriation responsibilities in a single committee, would be inconsistent with congressional practice during the past century. Other proposals to separate intelligence appropriations from defense appropriations are less radical, but meet with considerable opposition not only from those who defend the current appropriations subcommittee jurisdiction and practice, but also from observers who argue that many, even most, intelligence systems are so closely related to defense systems that removing them into a separate appropriations act (or even a separate title in an appropriations act) would make oversight more, rather than less, difficult.

Over 90% of intelligence appropriations are included (or “hidden”) within the budget of the Department of Defense (DOD). However, budget submissions prepared by DOD differ in format from those prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In addition, there is significant overlap between national and military intelligence as well as between intelligence and some communications and weapons programs. It has proved difficult both in the executive and legislative branches to ensure a coherent and seamless approach to funding and executing intelligence programs.

Making total amounts of intelligence spending public has, however, occurred at a time, unlike the situation in some earlier decades, when there is a general consensus regarding the importance of the nation’s intelligence effort given the persistence of terrorist threats. Despite this consensus, there are likely to be those who argue that intelligence activities must be reduced in line with reductions in other government programs. Others, however, may argue that as active duty force levels are reduced, intelligence assets become more important to provide better awareness of foreign threats and allow more efficient force dispositions. According to this view, intelligence accounts should be spared major reductions.

As a result, the congressional intelligence appropriations process is likely to receive continued attention. Congress may choose to review appropriations procedures to ensure that they most effectively enable decision making at a time when both national budgets and international conditions are grave matters of public concern.

Date of Report: December
16, 2011
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R4
Price: $29.95

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